My anime fandom has two touchstones, Evangelion and Honey and Clover, and that should clue you in to the sort of stories that I enjoy. A Certain Scientific Railgun, which was handed to me as part of the Reverse Thieves‘ Secret Santa project, is the sort of title that I would normally avoid. My thought was: it’s about yuri fanservice; it’s more oriented toward action rather than drama; it features the kind of fan pandering that peaked at the time the show aired (2009-2010) that I generally disdain. (Though, looking back at my first impressions at the time, I wasn’t that put off by the first episode. It was more what I heard later that discouraged me from following up.)
Fast forward three years later, and I’m ready to expand my horizons, put aside some old prejudices, and give a different sort of show a chance. Out of the three titles that were suggested to me—the other two were Aquarion EVOL and Sora no Woto, both of which I’d seen and in the latter case wrote about extensively)—I chose the show I was least likely to watch on my own.
So what did I think?
In short: A Certain Scientific Railgun was better than I expected, but I wasn’t expecting much. It’s competently directed in spots, reasonably paced when it’s not indulging in filler (which is often, unfortunately), and has a few decent cliffhangers. The action animation is frequently impressive, befitting its high budget. Aside from some of the milieu/world, however, there is little originality to the plot, and most of the characters fall flat. It is, really, a glossy but ultimately average anime series. It’s the equivalent of a second-tier Hollywood summer blockbuster spinoff; the X-Men Origins: Wolverine of anime.
There’s actually an old-fashioned action anime story buried beneath the yuri and filler. The best parts of Railgun tell that story, about experiments done on children going out of control with a scientist facing a moral dilemma and the need to atone for her actions—to stop the ultimate baddy from taking over. Shades of Akira and other classic sci-fi anime lurk here, with an almost late 1980s-1990s approach: big robots, thunderbolts and lightning courtesy of our human railgun Mikoto, and highways and trucks being ripped apart and thrown. Not to mention pulsing globules of monstrous flesh forming in the middle of cities. The storytelling approach and the outcome couldn’t be more different, of course, but the homages seem clear. And for someone like myself whose fandom teeth were cut on this sort of show, the feeling was familiar and even occasionally welcome. It was like watching something like Saber Marionette J or Burn Up again; not because the plots or characters are similar, but the feeling was. This is bread and butter type of anime.
Tatsuyuki Nagai, the series director, did the best he could with the material. I was most impressed with the way plot threads and hints, even from supposed filler episodes, made their way into the main story. His talent for managing multiple characters and pacing them evenly also showed, especially when all four leads are out doing different things. In the few moments of introspection given to the characters (particularly Saten, Dr. Kiyama, and Mikoto), we see flashes of the Nagai of Ano Natsu and Toradora. When the characters ruminate on whether Academy City is truly a meritocracy, what it means to be a certain Level, and who gets left out in such a system—the show rises above itself. Dr. Kiyama’s backstory episode, and the way it tied into the final episode, was handled with the sort of deftness and emotional sincerity that I expect from Nagai. It made the otherwise predictable ending feel stronger than it actually was. He even manages to sneak in some of his trademark yearning romance, albeit in compressed form, in the two episode arc about the Big Spider/Skill Out gang.
The show suffers most when it bows to stale comedic conventions and refuses to let the female leads grow beyond their typecast characters. Kuroko eventually proves her professional competence and dedication, but before that, her yuri slapstick antics only made me laugh a little before becoming simply irritating. Mikoto, the nominal protagonist, is the most straightforward and balanced character, but has few distinctive traits other than her love of cute things, wearing shorts under her skirt, and her powers. She’s likable but bland, and she’s the same at the end as she was in the beginning. (Compare with her doppelganger, Mai of Mai Hime. What does Kuroko see in her?) Saten, apparently a fan favorite, has a few moments given her status as a Level 0—she gets some touches of the Nagai treatment in the unusually quiet coda to the first arc—but not nearly as much as the conflicted and haunted Dr. Kiyama, who steals the show as the most complex and interesting character. (Her “undresstress” quirk seems altogether disconnected from her character.) The de rigeur swimsuit episode attempted to do something different with its shifting settings and relative lack of camera ogling*, but felt oddly paced and disjointed. Perhaps the worst offender was a single episode in which the girls attempt to matchmake their dorm matron: a cliche anime sitcom plot that felt willfully anti-climactic and emotionally unresolved by its end, because the episode has to end in the way it does for it to fit the type.
Nagai has only directed one other series with two cours, Toradora, and Railgun could have been a more propulsive series had it only been one cour. Much of the second half especially could have been cut without doing much damage to the plot, as well as the first few episodes, which did not leave the best impression until the story actually started. This is a plot rather than character-driven series, because the characters are mostly too flat to carry the story without the Big Baddy Threatening the City While Cackling and Overexplaining Her Plans. It’s a plot that we’ve seen many times before too, offering few surprises, but at least it would have been fast paced and the sleek action sequences—anime is a visual medium after all—would provide excitement.
Instead, we have a loosey, sometimes funny, sometimes actiony series. It’s neither more nor less than the sum of it parts; it’s essentially a grab bag of various anime elements that cohere somewhat when the main story is being told. I did enjoy watching Railgun, because it’s undeniably fun at its best. It’s like a lot of anime that way; not everything is a Kaiba or a H&C or Hyouka or, to use a better piece from Nagai’s repertoire, an Ano Natsu. Nor does everything have to be. It wouldn’t be fair for me to dismiss it out of hand, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to put it alongside my favorites either.
Railgun, in other words, is ok.
*Granted, the standard for anime when it comes to camera ogling/male gaze is, shall we say, exceptionally low cut. But Nagai’s beach/swimsuit episodes are usually more tame than most and often contribute meaningfully to the story. See Ano Natsu‘s beach arc for one good example.
This post is part of the Reverse Theieves‘ Secret Santa Project, where anibloggers anonymously suggest shows to other anibloggers for review. Tomorrow we’ll find out who suggested this series to me. Railgun is legally available in the United States by streaming on both Funimation and Hulu.